Judge: Dixie Chick didn't defame man by suggesting role in murders
8:23 AM PST 12/3/2009 by Eriq Gardner
An Arkansas district court has decided to let outspoken Dixie Chicks vocalist Natalie Maines off the hook for suggesting a man was responsible for the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys.
Judge Brian Miller shrugged off the interesting question of whether Maines deserves the same kind of protections that journalists get when relying upon public documents. Instead, Judge Miller based his ruling on a more traditional reading of defamation law.
In 2007, Maines was inspired by two HBO documentaries that reviewed the 1994 conviction of Damien Echols in the so-called West Memphis Three case. Some evidence seemed to point to another individual, Terry Hobbs, and Maines penned an open letter to fans on the Dixie Chicks website. She described evidence from a habeas corpus petition "showing that Damien Echols was wrongfully convicted" and pointed to DNA tests showing a hair found in a ligature used to strangle one of the victims belonging to Hobbs.
Hobbs sued, and Maines made an interesting defense in her motion for summary judgment: She asserted a "fair report privilege," which would have entitled her — and maybe all bloggers of this world — a shield from defamation when relying upon public documents and proceedings. Journalists get this privilege.
In his ruling on Tuesday, Judge Miller pokes some holes in Maines' journalistic chops, saying the singer didn't actually read the habeas petition filed by Echols, instead relying upon notes prepared by a publicist. Nevertheless, the judge said the "fair report privilege" motion is moot.
That's because Judge Miller has a much easier out. Hobbs is a "limited purpose public figure" because he voluntarily injected himself into public controversy, and as such, Judge Miller finds that no reasonable jury can find "actual malice" on the part of the Dixie Chick.
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